This week your State Council Information Office released its “white paper” on gender equality and women’s development to mark the 20th anniversary of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. My daughter was born and abandoned in a farming town in Jiangsu province exactly one year after that global conference took place in Beijing. Xinhua, the news outlet your government controls, reported the claim made in the White Paper — that China “has always upheld the constitutional principle of equality between men and women.”
Many in China have good reason to disagree with that statement. Yet, women who have done so publicly have been jailed, while the words of others are censored, for speaking about their unequal treatment.
Many of my experiences as girl growing up in 1960s and 1970s America resemble those my daughter would have grown up with in China had she not been adopted and raised in America. I’m sharing here similarities and differences I see between my life as a girl and young woman in America and the life experiences of girls and young women in my daughter’s generation in China.
Sincerely, Melissa Ludtke
My daughter was three days old when she was abandoned in Xiaxi, a farming town in China. Police took her to the Social Welfare Institute in the nearby city of Changzhou. It’s likely she was born to parents who felt they needed a son. In Jiangsu, her province, family planning cadres enforced its one-child policy that limited even rural families, like hers, to one child. In Changzhou, I met Chang Yulu who became my daughter, Maya, when she was nine months old. A week later we settled into our new life in Cambridge, Mass., where Maya and I have lived as a family of two for the past 18 years.
Adoption bonded us as mom and daughter, as Maya’s birth bonds our family to China. These links are unbreakable. China’s tug on my daughter is visceral, intimate and inescapable. For me it feels personal, too, and never more so than on my Maya’s birthday. As she blows out candles on her birthday cake, my wish is for her birth parents to somehow know or feel that their daughter is growing up cherished and well.
On most other days, the reporter inside of me activates my connection to China. Telling stories about girls and women’s lives and dynamics within families is what I did for more than a decade at Time magazine. It’s my sweet spot as a reporter. By adopting Maya, my lens widened to include girls and women’s lives in China. Each day I track what authors and bloggers, researchers and journalists say about their changing lives in 21st century China — and on our Touching Home in China Facebook page, I share what I learn.
In my rummaging, I’ve discovered this other mother-daughter connection. It turns out the America of my younger years resembles the bumpy terrain that girls and young women in China encounter today. Had Maya not been abandoned and adopted, this landscape would be hers.
Maya is 19 years old and a first-year student at an American college. When I was nearly her age America’s 20th century women’s movement burst on the national stage. In September 1968, when I was 17, our cultural touchstone for women, the Miss America pageant, was transformed into a mind-altering protest. No bra was burned that day, though the New York Radical Women who organized the protest tossed in the Freedom Trash Can “instruments of female torture” — girdles, mops, copies of Playboy, high-heeled shoes and false eyelashes, among them. Mass news coverage focused millions of new eyes, including mine, on issues that for years had been percolating in women’s consciousness-raising sessions.
The Atlantic City performance touched a societal nerve — and that sparked a women’s movement.
Women’s Rights in China
In China, small contingents of women’s rights activist try to gain exposure for their issues. Young women come up with creative protests to try to draw visibility to workplace regulations and practices, societal strictures, and their treatment in the home and at work that don’t match up to the gender equality that China’s Constitution promises.
Unlike the American experience, their actions have not garnered attention in the mainstream Chinese press, which the government controls.
In part, this is why public demonstrations of this tiny vanguard of radical women have not grown into boulevard-wide marches of my younger years or amassed greater grass-roots political power in something like our National Organization for Women.
Still, women in China don’t look far to find inequities based on gender. Girls graduating from high school must score higher than boys on the gaokao, the country’s national entrance exam, to gain admittance to some universities. A 2014 report “China’s Higher Education Gender Discrimination Map” revealed the unequal treatment in admissions based on gender at 66 universities in 27 provinces. Once girls get into college, certain departments have “gender restrictions” limiting their enrollment, most notably national security (police academies, for example, accept few women) and national defense, along with geosciences and aeronautics. Yet, despite fewer women existing in China’s population due to the one-child policy, more females than males have enrolled in China’s universities since 2009.
After these women graduate, they confront discriminatory practices as they apply for jobs. “Some job advertisements say ‘no women, we only want men.’ Others tell a woman she should not be married if she wants to apply for our job,” Feng Yuan, a Chinese journalist turned women’s rights scholar and advocate, told me when we visited in China. For one sales job, for example, the applicant had to be a “pretty woman with height no less than 1.7 meters.” Such practices continue despite the passage in 2008 of the Law on Employment Promotion that prohibits them.
I was a teenager when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission made it illegal for U.S. job listings to specify gender. Government enforcement soon ended that practice, even though hiring and promotion decisions within companies kept gendered job divisions in place. I was almost 19 years old, my daughter’s age today, when 46 women at Newsweek shocked their male bosses by filing the first female class action suit against them. The women had carefully tracked the gender discrimination in how the top managers (all men) hired and promoted or more often failed to promote women. That these women chose to announce their legal action on the day Newsweek published its explosive 1970 cover story “Women in Revolt” guaranteed that their case received Page One exposure.
Employers in China justify men-only job ads and gender-specific job categories, by claiming, among other reasons, that women aren’t suited for business travel and are too weak to carry a suitcase. Not until late 2014 did a court in China issue its first ruling in a gender discrimination case related to employment. A young woman applied for a clerk’s job and when she wasn’t hired, she took her case to court. The judge determined that gender was the deciding factor and awarded her compensation.
Discrimination in the workplace does not end for China’s women after they are hired. A survey by the government’s All China Women’s Federation in 2011 found that 92 percent of women it polled had encountered some form of discrimination at work. For government jobs, some women applicants have undergone mandatory gynecological exams and been forced to provide detail about their monthly cycle. Once hired, a wrongly timed pregnancy can lead to punishment. A notice circulated recently on social media about a city credit cooperative directing women employees to schedule her pregnancy so it did not “unduly influence” operations of the company. Failure to comply would result in a fine and loss of promotion.
By the time I became a teenager, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had rendered pregnancy discrimination illegal.
In recent years, Chinese women activists’ imaginative protests — singing on subway cars about domestic violence or performing on sidewalks in ways designed to turn the heads of passers-by — seem as though they could have come from the pages of 1970s American women activists’ playbooks.
At Wuhan University, students chanted, “I am not a vase. I am myself,” as a woman smashed a tall vase decorated with words such as “skinny,” and “pale skin tone” to connote stereotypical beauty. The shards left at the university’s gate signaled displeasure that a beauty pageant was held there. On Valentine’s Day in 2012, three Beijing women dressed in red (blood) stained wedding dresses paraded down city streets as symbols of the prevalence and societal acceptance of violence in the home and lack of legal protections. China‘s’ first national Anti-Domestic Violence Law went into effect on March 1, 2016. During this bill’s lengthy legislative journey, women activists worked quietly and effectively within narrow lanes government officials prescribed to them and were able to strengthen Xithe bill’s provisions.
As American women can attest, societal attitudes often take even longer to change than it does to pass new laws. For two-step process to begin, a few courageous agitators must step forward first. Until they do, the status quo advances.
In March, just before International Women’s Day, the police arrested 10 women’s rights activists planning to distribute materials about sexual harassment on public transport. The police got to them before the women got to protest. The charge was “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” When the government jailed five of these women in Beijing, they were charged with “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.”
Soon, from around the world, came calls for China to #FreetheFive.
With the arrest and month-long detention of these women activists, Beijing leaders delivered a powerful message to other women: similar actions would be viewed as “disrupting order,” i.e. a disorderly push against the status quo. In China, speaking out publicly rather than moving through government channels constitutes a disruption of order. Women’s public protests have all but halted. Now, when women come together to talk about the absence of equal rights, they do what they can to keep their meeting places and what they say away from the prying eyes and ears of government snoops. They know they’re being watched and listened to.
During that 1968 Miss America pageant, women activists bought seats in the balcony. At an opportune moment unfurled a bed sheet with the words “Women’s Liberation” written on it. Police removed those “radical” women from the hall. By then, the American government was snooping on them and others they believed were a threat to public order. Women were targets for talking about wanting to be “liberated,” just as it seems women in China are today.
Testifying at the Church Committee hearings on government secrecy in 1975, the committee’s chief counsel F.A.O. (Fritz) Schwarz, Jr. revealed what he’d found in Counter Intelligence Program reports “about meetings of women who got together to talk about their problems.” Women shared feelings of being “oppressed sexually or otherwise,” he said, topics that had “nothing to do with violence, nothing to do with these labels of subversion and extremism.” In conclusion, Schwarz produced an FBI document saying, “We will continue to follow and report the activities of the women’s liberation movement.”
In 1977, Time Inc. hired Fritz Schwarz to represent me in the federal court case, Ludtke v. Kuhn. Sports Illustrated, my employer, was suing Major League Baseball because its Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, had prohibited me from reporting inside teams’ locker rooms. This was where male reporters did their interviews. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gave Judge Constance Baker Motley the legal basis to enforce my equal rights.
In China, the words “equal rights for women” appear as Article 48 in the Constitution. They don’t show up in ours. When my gender discrimination case was in court, the Equal Rights Amendment that Congress had passed in 1972 hit up the buzz saw of conservative activism. By the end of that decade, the ERA was sputtering to its death as it failed to secure the last few of the 38 states needed for its ratification. China’s Constitution confers “equal rights [for women] with men in all spheres of life, political, economic, cultural, social, and family life,” yet the daily realities of girls and women’s life experiences don’t match this lofty ideal.
I learned firsthand in my legal fight that without an independent judiciary constitutional words are empty vessels. Reporting on baseball in the 1970s, often I’d be the only woman in a press box. In the decades since Judge Motley issued her ruling, tens of thousands of women have moved into a widening array of jobs in sports, as sports columnists and editors, broadcast analysts and sideline reporters, as NFL referees and on NBA coaching staffs.
This week, Beijing’s Shunyi People’s Court held its final of three hearings in a gender discrimination case brought against China’s largest postal service by 24-year old Ma Hu. (She uses a pseudonym in the press, as many women plaintiffs do in China.) A decision is expected soon, but her case is already inspiring women’s rights activists to circulate a petition calling for equal employment opportunities.
Words matter. But it’s only when their meaning is enforced that they make a real difference in people’s lives. As China’s leaders increase control over expression — by censoring in the press and on social media, by jailing of those with dissident views, and by tightening regulation of domestic civil groups — it’s vital that courts in China continue inching their way forward as defenders of equal rights for women.
Chinese women make up one fifth of the world’s total female population. More than ever the voices of women agitating for equal rights in China need to be heard and what their Constitution promised them needs to be upheld.
Melissa Ludtke, an award-winning journalist, is producing “Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods.” Six multimedia stories will show and tell about the rare journey two American girls made back to the rural towns in China where each was abandoned as a newborn. There, the Americans got to know girls their age who’d been raised there as only-child daughters. From those girls, they learned what it’s like to be a girl and become a woman in 21st century China.